William Schwenk Gilbert, one can safely say, did not have a very high opinion of lawyers. Especially very senior ones, such as the Lord Chancellor. Such was the quality of the man’s word play, however, that in Iolanthe, he was able to lampoon the Lord Chancellor, the bar and both houses of Parliament in a way that’s mercilessly vicious if you care to think about it, and air-headedly innocuous if you don’t.

ENO Chorus © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL
ENO Chorus
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

Perhaps to everyone’s surprise, the director of this new English National Opera production, Cal McCrystal, plays it straight, eschewing updating the story to Brexit, the travails of Theresa May, or anything else: the nearest we get to a contemporary reference is an obvious Boris Johnson character riding across the stage on his bicycle. But why do anything else? Lampooning the bunch of overentitled, self-serving, rich and (mainly) elderly people who run our country seems just as appropriate today as it did 150 years ago. Gilbert’s rhymes are to die for, and while his humour can be slapstick and puerile, it can also be quite subtle – no more so than in the glorious entanglement, late in Act 2, when the Lord Chancellor describes the imaginary court hearing in which he (as supplicant) pleads to himself (as judge) to permit himself (as besotted lover) to marry his ward Phyllis, rendered with befuddled gusto by Andrew Shore.

Samantha Price (Iolanthe), Andrew Shore (Lord Chancellor) © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL
Samantha Price (Iolanthe), Andrew Shore (Lord Chancellor)
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

McCrystal has no inhibitions about hamming everything up to the max, given a huge leg up by designer Paul Brown – it’s so sad that Brown died in November, robbing him of the chance to see his work made real. Brown’s sets and costumes are beautifully executed, a riot of colour and fun, and difficulties like “how to turn a bunch of not exactly young and sylph-like chorus members into sweetly tripping fairies” are handled with panache. Stagecraft is nothing short of superb: the sheer amount of movement from the chorus is jaw-dropping, and there is exuberant use of things like people flying above the stage or the random apparition of animal puppets (check out the Fairy Queen’s use of the unicorn’s horn). McCrystal can’t resist putting in a bunch of additional gags, many of them visual but some spoken: the vast majority of them worked, with the audience in stitches.

Barnaby Rea (Private Willis), Yvonne Howard (Queen of the Fairies) © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL
Barnaby Rea (Private Willis), Yvonne Howard (Queen of the Fairies)
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

It’s Gilbert’s work that gets all the attention these days, but it’s Arthur Sullivan who was knighted for services to music by Queen Victoria during the run of Iolanthe. Sullivan was a very clever composer who could turn his hand to many different forms. The overture sees him at his best, beautifully orchestrated and (arguably) far more subtle than the rest of Iolanthe deserves. Sullivan shows himself adept at irreverent pastiche of various opera genres: we have snatches of Wagner, plenty of Mozart, the odd bit of bel canto. There are some nice romantic set piece arias, like Iolanthe’s “My lord, a suppliant at your feet”. But the prevailing style is knees-up Victorian music hall – jolly tunes requiring to be performed with verve.

Marcus Farnsworth (Strephon), Ellie Laugharne (Phyllis) © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL
Marcus Farnsworth (Strephon), Ellie Laugharne (Phyllis)
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

And verve is certainly what they got, from Timothy Henty, the ENO orchestra and the whole cast. Yvonne Howard was on magnificent form, bossing the show as the Queen of the Fairies and showing plenty of vocal chops along the way. The shepherd-and-shepherdess couple of Marcus Farnsworth and Ellie Laugharne gave us the strongest purely operatic voices of the evening, ably supported by Samantha Price in the title role. Andrew Shore’s Lord Chancellor certainly gave us exuberant comedy, although I would have liked to hear him use less of his speech voice and more of his singing voice, in which we could have done with a bit more power. Amongst a strong supporting cast, Barnaby Rea stood out vocally as Private Willis, the “first fairy Guardsman” (looking at the timing, by the way, it seems debatable as to whether the word “fairy” already had the meaning “homosexual” at the time Iolanthe was written). Actor Clive Mantle puts in a splendid appearance as Captain Shaw, the larger-than-life head of the fire brigade (a role added by McCrystal, although he features in the libretto), who acts as MC and pops up on stage whenever the Fairy Queen is so imprudent as to attempt to employ fire.

ENO Chorus and Cast © Clive Barda/ArenaPAL
ENO Chorus and Cast
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

If you loathe Gilbert and Sullivan, Iolanthe probably isn’t the one to convert you: nothing’s going to change the patchwork nature of Sullivan’s music and this production is unashamedly silly in the tradition of English pantomime. But if you’re a Gilbert and Sullivan fan, or merely uncommitted, you’ll love this production: it’s very true to the spirit of the original and it’s vibrant, fun and packed with gags.

****1